Good author, bad author…does being nice matter?

Good author, bad author…does being nice matter?

recent post by Lois Lavrisa in The Writer’s Guide to E-Publishing* about “Author Rock Stars” got me thinking.

Authors have fans.

They have loyal readers who will buy everything they write…regardless of whether something is the author’s best work or not.

They want to literally read and own everything the author has written.

Is that because of the experience of reading it? Would all of those high school English assignments and abandoned concepts be as entertaining if the fan didn’t know who had written them?

I’m sure that’s not the case.

Why is that?

What’s the perceived relationship the fan has with the author that imbues the entire oeuvre with a golden glow?

I say “perceived relationship” because in the vast majority of cases, the fan has never met or had any sort of social exchange with the author…except through the written works.

My guess is that most people want to read all those works because of an idealized conception of the author.

Hey, I feel the same way about some fictional characters. I feel that I owe Doc Savage something. I want to support that character, and I’ll buy something even if the “Doc” item isn’t very good. That’s with someone who doesn’t even exist.

While authors “don’t exist”, don’t have an actual interplay with the readers, that sort of loyalty can be sustained.

What happens when a fan actually meets an author?

In some cases, it can strengthen the relationship…in others, it can finish it.

I’ve written before about a great interaction I had with Forry Ackerman, an editor/author I approached at a science fiction convention. No question, that brief exchange elevated “Uncle Forry” even further for me.

However…

Those types of contact are relatively rare. Oh, it’s more common in certain genres…you can go to science fiction convention and have a pretty good chance to actually chat with one of your favorite authors. I think the same thing is true with mysteries and romances…although maybe not quite to the same degree.

In the modern e-world, though, some kind of direct contact with an author is happening a lot more often.

Frequent an online forum? An author may post there. Write an online review? the author may comment on it. Twitter, blogging, Facebook…those are all opportunities for an author to become “real” for readers.

I’ve seen many authors being…incautious about what they say in those situations.

Readers have literally millions of choices. While, in a situation like that, people might think it’s standing out that matters the most, it’s also not getting eliminated.

Potential buyers will reject you in a snap in many cases if you do one thing that justifies ignoring you.

I did some classes where I talked to job seekers about the process that employers went through in looking at (paper) resumes.

The first pass?

Rejecting as many as possible.

Hand-written? Rejected. Perfumed paper? Rejected. Any misspelling at all? Rejected.

An employer might hope to dump 90% of the resumes the first time through…without having to take the time to actually read the content.

I think the same thing may happen with author contacts.

Snarky comment? Rejected. Off topic promotion? Rejected. Not knowing the rules? Rejected.

Any attack on a reader will get you broadly rejected…even if other readers side with you.

I’ve trained trainers, and I talk about that. Students have to see themselves in (literally) the same class as other students. Let’s say a student makes an inappropriate comment. How you deal with that makes a huge difference. You may be more than capable of a witty putdown that will crush the commenter, and that may be deserved.

The other students, though, can’t miss that the trainer (in a position of authority) “punched down” to their level. They will feel some empathy…even if they think the commenter was completely out of line.

Now, if there are students, maybe two like you much better because of your clever vituperation.

You’ve lost the rest of them, though. They are afraid of you…and that makes it much harder for them to learn from you. Their focus becomes avoiding you, rather than standing with you and seeing things from your perspective.

For authors, I think it’s the same thing. Attack a reader, and other readers have to (in the most part) resent it.

If an author is a jerk, people may not even considering reading a book by that person…there are too many options.

That may be different from when book options were narrower. It may have been easier for Hemingway or Wilde…there weren’t a thousand people writing similar things.

I’m not saying those thousand are as good. It’s just that readers look for a reason to stop thinking about an author’s books as a possibility.

We could look at this as a matrix. Where is an author on the “jerk to nice” scale, where are they on the “hack to genius” scale?

Obviously, “jerk hacks” are easy to eliminate.

Also, “nice geniuses” are easy to buy.

What about “jerk geniuses” versus “nice hacks”?

Let’s move the writing scale off the extremes a bit.

Would you be more likely to read a “nice pretty good writer” over a very good writer who had personally insulted you?

I think most people would.

It’s tough to find genius works regardless…I think we tend to read a lot of “pretty good to very good” books.

What do you think? Is increased access making being nice more important for authors? Does it matter, or am I exaggerating the impact of readers’ perception of authors?

* For disclosure, I am a contributing columnist to WG2E. I am not being compensated for mentioning this article, and I was not asked to write this post for them. :)

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

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13 Responses to “Good author, bad author…does being nice matter?”

  1. Wyndes Says:

    As a reader, I don’t care anything about authors: I care whether the book I’m reading is entertaining me. I’m certainly less likely to pick up a book if I have some reason to believe that the author is a bad person, but I think encouraging authors to worry about everything they say and how it’s going to be perceived online does them a disservice. Authors are people, too. No, they shouldn’t be gratuitously cruel–but who should? And especially online, worrying about all the possible interpretations of the tone of every comment means making everything as bland as possible–that’s not likely to build readership!

    I’ve read an author blog and decided that the author was not someone who I would personally like, but it won’t stop me from reading her next book, which I’m sure I will like. I’ve also read author blogs with authors who seem quite sweet, and it won’t cause me to buy their next books, because the personality of the author has nothing to do with the quality of the writing.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Wyndes!

      It’s interesting, we approach this pretty differently…and I find your interpretation of what I wrote fascinating…and quite relevant to what I was saying. :)

      I don’t ever think it’s a disservice to suggest that people be mindful of how what they say can affect others…and that’s especially true in a business relationship. That’s what exists between authors and readers (although they may also have readers with whom they have personal relationships, of course).

      This was the most intriguing of your comments to me:

      “…online, worrying about all the possible interpretations of the tone of every comment means making everything as bland as possible–that’s not likely to build readership!”

      It suggests that positive comments can only be bland, while presumably inversely, negative comments are spicy. :) I don’t find that the case at all. I’ve seen positive things be as creative, and unique, and as satisfying as negative comments. It can be more difficult, certainly. One of my core tenets is that it’s easy to make people feel bad about themselves, hard to make them feel good. An author who said something like, “If you were smart enough, you wouldn’t have found my prose confusing,” doesn’t impress me much.

      I also noticed that on the one hand, you “don’t care anything about authors” and on the other, you are “less likely to pick up a book if I have some reason to believe that the author is a bad person.” That seems contradictory to me, if you’d care to elaborate. I’m often fine with reading books by people who may be “bad people”. You may find this earlier post along those lines interesting:

      http://ilmk.wordpress.com/2011/03/26/the-art-and-the-artist/

      This is a very different question, to me. It has to do with how the authors treat their readers, not how they treat people in general.

      I’m a former bookstore manager, and my Signficant Other finds it amusing that I still look at stores in that way to some extent. One of the things I do? I’ll count the number of times I hear employees complaining in public areas…about anything. We walked through a Nordstrom once, fabled for their customer service, and I think I counted seventeen complaints from one end of the store to the other.

      Are those employees entitled to complain about things? Absolutely! Out of public earshot, go for it. Where the customers can hear you, though, it’s part of the shopping experience…and complaining about the bus, the weather, or a Significant Other creates an uncomfortably negative environment which will reduce sales.

      If you are an author online, writing in a spot where you are identified as an author, you are “on the floor”, so to speak.

      I love reading authors with whom I would never be friends, by the way! My favorite comments are ones, like yours, which disagree with me respectfully. I would also love reading a book by someone with a political viewpoint that was the opposite of mine. I want to understand those other positions, and a well-written, well-argued book is a good way to do that.

      I appreciate you expressing your opinion, and I’ll be interested to see what other people have to say. Does kindness equal blandness? Should an author speak to readers the way they would speak to their friends (or enemies)? That’s really the question I was proposing…and I think you for contributing to the conversation.

      • Wyndes Says:

        <>

        No, I don’t think that particularly (or that’s not what I meant, anyway.) Although, actually, before I get to that, you seem to be saying in your response that you were specifically talking about authors directly insulting readers, and that wasn’t how I understood what you were saying. “Potential buyers will reject you in a snap in many cases if you do one thing that justifies ignoring you” is a much broader statement than don’t call your readers mean names. :) There’s a vast difference to me between saying something that directly insults an individual (which is, IMO, bad manners and a mistake for any professional) and saying something in a “perceived relationship” that may be taken as insulting.

        I’ll use a real-world example, because I love the author and her work. Kristin Cashore, author of Graceling and Fire, has written more than once on her blog about how much she hates Bank of America. Okay, BofA has more than 100,000 employees. Those people have families, so there are probably at least a quarter of a million people supported by BofA. Also, BofA has 57 million account holders who presumably don’t hate their bank. Should she censor herself because of fear of insulting those people? Many, many, many author blogs would: those are the universally positive, everything is sunshine-and-roses, you-love-me-and-I-love-you blogs. Personally, I find those blogs feel inauthentic and dull. I would rather read someone willing to be honest about her hatred of BofA and her love of trapezes and Bollywood. To me, the line isn’t positive=bland vs. negative=spicy as much as it is always positive=fake vs. sometimes negative=honest. I am definitely not suggesting, however, that any author should ever directly insult a reader. But to me, that’s basic manners, and has nothing to do with being an author. If you wouldn’t say something offline to someone’s face than you shouldn’t say it online, either.

        As for this, “I also noticed that on the one hand, you “don’t care anything about authors” and on the other, you are “less likely to pick up a book if I have some reason to believe that the author is a bad person.”–you cut out part of the quote, and it’s an important part. What I care about is whether a book is entertaining and/or likely to entertain me. If I know something about an author that I think makes a book less likely to entertain me, then okay, that matters. I know, for example, about that woman from that television show about New Jersey that nothing I know about her life interests me, so I’m unlikely to pick up her book. (I can’t remember her name. Stookie or something? But I feel like I’m mixing her up with a vampire book now.) Anyway, I like to identify with narrators so if I have reason to believe that I’m not going to identify with the narrator, I’m unlikely to pick up the book. But I don’t research authors before I buy their books, and I’d be surprised if anyone else does either. Is that a little clearer? The original paragraph is the complete thought, not the individual phrases.

        If your post really meant, ‘don’t say mean things to your readers’, then, um, yeah. You can delete my comments because I wouldn’t have bothered to respond to an idea as straightforward at that one! (Although interestingly now I’m worried about censoring myself–if that sounds rude, I don’t intend it that way. :) )

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Wyndes!

        I appreciate you expanding on your comments!

        First, let me apologize if you thought I took the quotes I was contrasting out of context. One of my favorite quotations is by Manny Farber:

        “…context…”
        ;)

        Since your entire statement was visible above, I just pulled the two pieces that seemed conflicting to me. For those who want to see them, I’ll reproduce it here:

        “As a reader, I don’t care anything about authors: I care whether the book I’m reading is entertaining me. I’m certainly less likely to pick up a book if I have some reason to believe that the author is a bad person, but I think encouraging authors to worry about everything they say and how it’s going to be perceived online does them a disservice. Authors are people, too. No, they shouldn’t be gratuitously cruel–but who should? And especially online, worrying about all the possible interpretations of the tone of every comment means making everything as bland as possible–that’s not likely to build readership!”

        As to your Bank of America example, that’s a great one. When I trained trainers, I would have advised them not to say something like that in the classroom. If you are trying to train someone about, say, Excel, and you make a “lousy service at the DMV” joke…you’ll lose a DMV employee, or friend or relative of one. While you might solidy your rapport in the class with others who agree with the joke or don’t see it as real, you could have done that with a joke about yourself.

        In the case of the blog you mention, the question for me is the audience. If the relationship is more intimate, so the readers know you are kidding, that’s one thing. If the relationship is “famous person to fans”, that’s different.

        In the section on Snooki (Sookie is the character in the book series), you are using a person who doesn’t interest you as an equivalent to the “bad person” in your earlier quotation? For me, I go with Doctor Who: “Everything is important.”* I find everybody’s lives interesting. :)

        From my experience, many people know something about an author before they buy a book. The whole discussion about “the art and the artist” I had in an earlier post had to with H.P. Lovecraft. The person had heard about attitudes of Lovecraft’s that would be offensive to that person. I’ve run across the same sort of question expressed about L. Frank Baum, and Orson Scott Card. While I agree with you that most people don’t research an author first, I think that some do…and in the case of a book written by a celebrity (like Snooki), the awareness may be higher without doing specific research.

        I’d have to say that my post wasn’t quite as simplistic as “don’t say mean things to your readers”, although that is certainly advice I would give. :) I would include in that not being insensitive to context. I have seen many times people saying that they would not ever buy a book from someone because that author self-promoted in an unconnected thread. That’s not a case of being mean…I’d call it insensitive.

        * Harriet Jones (played by Penelope Wilton): “Is it important?”
        The Doctor (played by Christopher Eccleston): “Everything’s important.”
        –World War Three episode of Doctor Who
        screenplay by Russell T. Davies

  2. Jami Says:

    For me, it’s a balance. If I enjoy a book enough to seek out the author online (blogs, websites, etc), chances are good I’d pick up at least another book or three by them. However, that being said, if the author is rude or condescending, I won’t bother reading them, no matter how much I might have enjoyed that first book. I have enough books on the to be read pile that I don’t want to support authors who act like that. On the flip side, if the author is really interesting and nice, I’ll eagerly read the rest of their work, and even go out of my way to pick up new releases as soon as possible. I think in our constantly connected world, there’s no reason for authors to ever be mean to their readers. On the flip side, readers should be polite to the authors too. Saying you didn’t like a certain book, or aspect is one thing, flamebaiting is another. Authors should resist trolls, and merely respond with silence, or deleting the flaming post.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Jami!

      Yes, the point about how readers treat authors is important!

      I see people write intentionally cruel, clever (or not so clever) things about a book as if the author wasn’t a person and didn’t exist.

      I always suggest that people be honest and specific when they write reviews. Don’t just say, “It sucks!” say what you didn’t like about it.

      The same thing goes for when you do like it. Just saying, “Cool book,” doesn’t help much. :)

  3. Kathy Says:

    Hi Bufo: I have seen this with David Pogue and the Ask the Pilot (Patrick) columnist. Both are authors whose books I own, I have interacted with Patrick, but not Pogue, directly (although he is quite interactive esp through Twitter). Both have gotten critical, unwarranted comments (not inappropriate, just wrong and unfair). And both have come back at the commenters with fair, but strong, angry comments. I love this because the jerks got called on their nonsense. If more unfair, snarky commenters got called on it, the internet would be better for all. But I do not think this makes me more or less likely to buy books, but both gained more of my respect. And to be really clear, these were stupid, nasty comments and both called them on it. Kathy

  4. Gwen Says:

    Full disclosure here: This comment comes from someone that has two emails printed out from two best selling authors sent to me, thanking me for my reviews. They make my day whenever I see them.

    That being said, I don’t consider myself a crazy fangirl, and an author’s behavior, any author, toward any reader, really can change how I feel about their work. If I read a review of a book that the person didn’t really like, then see a blistering comment from the author….you can bet that I am never going to touch that author with a ten-foot pole.

    If I ever heard of an an author insulting anyone (assuming the fan/reader was behaving in a rational constructive way) they would be put on my never read list. There are just too many great books and writers out there for me to waste my time on bad human beings.

    Crazy rants from authors big and small? …a dime a dozen.

    Merry Christmas email from Mark Billingham? ..priceless.and a nice touch.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Gwen!

      I completely understand that.

      Let me give you a parallel example from my life.

      Years ago, I knew somebody who was a big John Belushi fan. There was a “stars of Saturday Night Live” college tour happening, and this person wanted somebody to give Belushi the “John Belushi memorial fund”. That seems in bad taste now, of course, but he was alive (if not well) at the time.

      I went to the show for that purpose, mainly as a favor to this person I knew.

      The show was a great disappointment to many people. People expected Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner, for one thing, and it was really Belushi and a writer or two, as I recall.

      Belushi was also, simply, mean to the audience.

      The place was quite unruly for that reason.

      I had told Security that I had this thing for Belushi.

      They gave it to him (onstage) at one point.

      One of Belushi’s go-tos during the show had been to say, “You want to come up here?” when someone heckled him.

      When he said it to me, I said, “Sure,” and hopped up onstage.

      I spoke for a minute or so (this is how disorganized the show was), and Belushi was, I think, making funny faces and such upstage of me.

      He said, “You’re a real professional, you know?”

      And I said, “Well, one of us has to be.”

      There was an “oooh” from the first few rows.

      Belushi got a chainsaw, as I recall, smashed a lectern, and cut it into pieces (one piece stuck in the big screen behind him).

      I would never do this now, by the way, but it did get into the newspaper review (I was described as a “nervy spectator”). The college refunded the ticket costs to anybody who asked…and as I recall, it was reported that something like two thirds of the audience did…an astonishing figure.

      I never watched anything with John Belushi in it after that…while he was alive, because I didn’t want him to profit it from him. Not because of his interaction with me, to be clear, but because of how he had treated the audience.

      I would never behave that way now. This is a good example of why that sort of behavior is inappropriate. Belushi was undoubtedly exhausted at that point, and was quite possibly under the influence. He was brilliant in a lot of ways, and I should have been sympathetic to his issues, not having a “quip off”, even onstage. What he had said to me, even if it was done somewhat ironically, was gracious in that situation. He could have walked off stage during the show, but he kept trying to entertain the group.

      I’ve learned much more over time about sympathy, empathy, and tolerance. I’ve learned not to “cut” people in that way…and usually, that’s not even my instinct any more. :)

      On the other hand, as you say, one nice gesture from an author can have a lifelong impact.

      • Gwen Says:

        Wonderful story and a great way to show that this doesn’t just apply to authors, but every person/brand that wants your money.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Gwen!

        I’m glad you enjoyed the story. :)

        I was so torn when Blues Brothers came out. I’d met John Landis (who directed it) when Landis was promoting Schlock. I wanted to see the the Blues Brothers for that reason…but didn’t want to support Belushi, so I skipped it. I saw it eventually, though…after Belushi had passed, or in some situation where it wouldn’t benefit the SNL star.

  5. Lady Galaxy Says:

    I’m a retired teacher. I’ve attended lots of in-service programs. Most were simply endurance tests, but once in awhile one of them produced gems of advice that I’ve carried with me. One of the best pieces of information I got out of one of them was that our students might not remember all the facts we tried to teach them, but they would never forget how we treated them. I think that’s true in all our encounters.

    I don’t know if I would stop reading books by a favorite author if I ever had an unpleasant encounter with one. I might still read the next book but make sure to borrow it instead of buying it;) My cousin used to work at a bookstore in NCY. They often hosted book signings for authors and other celebs. I was disappointed to learn that one of my favorite Star Trek actors, who shall remain nameless, was rude to the staff of the bookstore and refused to sign autographs for them unless they purchased the audio cassette he was selling at the signing. It didn’t make me stop watching the show, but he dropped way down on my list of favorite actors.

    Way back in the early days of AOL, when it was still in its glory days, quite a few authors participated in board discussions with their fans. Ron Moore, one of the Star Trek producers had his own board on the Star Trek forum and he interacted with posters. I once found myself playing trivia games with Joan Hess, author of the Magody mystery series.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lady!

      Absolutely!

      When we look at a lot of things, it isn’t the product…it’s the relationship and what surrounds it.

      Take medical care. In a routing situation, the care is largely the same. The actual process of getting a vaccination isn’t very different from one place to another. Roll up your sleeve, swab it, inject it, done.

      However, people do switch primary care providers, especially in health maintenance organizations, where it may be easy.

      Why?

      It’s because of the things around that process. I’ve changed my PCP based on something the person said, for example. The amount of time it takes to get an appointment, how long you wait in the waiting room, whether or not you feel the person is respecting your opinion…those have a huge bearing on the decision.

      As there are more options to get books, the “service” element will, I think, become more important.

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